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2009-10 Canes Country Exit Analysis: Brandon Sutter

"Yeah. It was a different year...[nodding]...... fersherr." - Brandon Sutter, April 12, 2010 at his Exit interview with the local Media.

If I had to choose one player who seemingly could do no wrong in the eyes of the beleaguered Carolina Hurricanes fans this season, it might just be 21-year-old centerman Brandon Sutter. Starting the season in the A (as in American Hockey League) and ending the season wearing one on his sweater, as a surprise Alternate Captain when Rod Brind`Amour did not make the trip to Boston, Sutter's is, fersherr, the "Feel-good" story of the Canes' 2009-10 season.

With a solid sophomore stat line:

2009 - 10 Brandon Sutter 72 21 19 40 -1 2 5 0 3 168 12.5

and a recognizable hockey name, Sutter garnered the attention of the national hockey press as well. It wasn't just for his discipline and patience (only one minor penalty in 72 games played - are you sure he's a Sutter?) which got him mentioned as a Lady Byng nominee (awarded to the player who demonstrates the most "gentlemanly" play). Even more impressive, some were showing that he deserved to be in the mix for a Selke Trophy nomination, as the forward who accomplishes the most with his efforts in the defensive zone, an honor that a couple of his highly-respected predecessors in Carolina, Rod Brind`Amour and Ron Francis, can claim. While neither trophy is his (yet), the sky's the limit for this gangly kid who still hasn't played two full seasons in the National Hockey League.

Toward the end of the season, in March, some 60-odd NHL games and more than 1500 shifts after LTD snapped this story's lead photo in October, Paul Maurice put into words what many of us had been thinking, indicating it was unanimous:

When asked about the play of Brandon Sutter, coach Paul Maurice said, "This guy, at 21 years old, is the defining player in our lineup."

After the jump, some video, a closer looks at his statistics, and your chance to grade Sutter's 09-10 season.

Did you have a chance to see Sutter's exit interview back in April? For all the Sutter "coach speak" and predictable cliches useful for staying out of media controversy, we can see moments where his personal pride for how special this season was is bubbling below the surface. Maybe it gives us some insight into his maturity, his ability to understand the moment and perform his job superbly in that moment, both on and off the ice, that sets him apart from his peers.

I also encourage you to get a feel for some of what was going on in this young man's head , and listen to Puck Tracks: Brandon Sutter, Carolina Hurricanes country boy - Puck Daddy. This podcast will give you a whole different perspective: You hear [Sutter] talk about Daughtry's "September" or "Back Where I Come From" by Kenny Chesney, and you completely understand the mental strain on a 21-year-old farm kid traveling from city to city as a professional athlete; as well as how much home means to him.

For season highlights, I wasn't sure which of his 21 goals you'd like to see. There was the one vs Boston in January (his 12th) with the virtuoso feed from Ray Whitney, leading to Sutter's easy-to-lipread "Wow!" upon watching the replay. Maybe the drive to the net on a breakaway in Montreal, on March 31st (which was the milestone number 20) with the assist from Montreal Dman Roman Hamrlik? In the end, I chose this one, his second of the season at that Halloween House of Horrors matinee in Philadelphia. Do you remember how bad everything was going for the Hurricanes and the Caniacs around then? I put this one up, not so much because it was a stand-out for pizzazz, but because it was typical Brandon Sutter energy, effort and vision. Maybe it helps us remember what he did for the team's psyche as much as on the scoresheet. Keep an eye on #16 below, seemingly everywhere at once, until, with the net open, he bangs it home. When it kept happening the rest of the season, we all figured out, it wasn't just a fluke.

Some numbers

With not much else going on this weekend, I thought I'd do a little bit of extra stat analysis to trace how Sutter evolved from an emergency call-up (following that dreadful game in Colorado punctuated by the suspension of Tuomo Ruutu) in Minnesota October 24th, to being identified as an "Untouchable" as the trade deadline loomed in February, till in April, concluding his break-out season wearing the A in the club's final game in Boston.

This first pair of tables divide Sutter's season evenly into four 18-game segments. I expected to use them to show how he evolved and improved over the season. Instead, almost every category is a model of consistency, with one exception. Check out the Face-off win percentage, highlighted in red, which steadily rose up from the wrong side of 50/50 to the right one.

Brandon Sutter's 2009-10 season statistics
18-game Segments G A P PP Goals SOG S % FO % Shifts/game Avg TOI/game
Games 1-18 (Oct 24 - Nov 30) 6 4 10 1 44 13.6% 47.7% 22.7 16:34
Games 19-36 (Dec 5 - Jan 12) 5 3 8 2 45 11.1% 47.7% 22.6 16:34
Games 37-54 (Jan 14 - Mar 4) 5 8 13 1 37 13.5% 50.0% 22.8 16:36
Games 55-72 (Mar 6 - Apr 10) 5 4 9 1 42 11.9% 52.7% 22.9 16:28
Season Total 72 games 21 19 40 5 168 12.5% 49.0% 22.8 16:32

This second table looks at the cumulative effect of Sutter's plus/minus numbers and compares them to the overall team's goal differential for these same four 18-game segments. Clearly all boats rise and fall with the tide, and we could argue cause-and-effect, but I am impressed by that first 18-game segment, when Sutter was -3 over a span where his team was - 30. That tells me a lot about how he came in and immediately started plugging the leaks. Eventually, his efforts had results where others had not been as successful. (Not to pick on the veterans Brind`Amour or Yelle last fall, but they would be the most obvious place to start as they were the defensive centers who were supposed to be minding the store.)

The Hurricanes and Sutter: Win/Loss and Plus/Minus
18-game Segments CAR W/L/OTL CAR goal dif Sutter's +/-
Games 1-18 (Oct 24 - Nov 30) 3 / 12 / 3 -30 -3
Games 19-36 (Dec 5 - Jan 12) 9 / 7 / 2 -2 -1
Games 37-54 (Jan 14 - Mar 4) 12 / 6 / 0 +21 +6
Games 55-72 (Mar 6 - Apr 10) 8 / 7 / 3 -3 -3
Season Total 72 games 32 / 32 / 8 -14 -1

That got me thinking about how Paul Maurice and the other coaches were trying to get the most out of this very smart and competitive hockey player, to find out just how productive he could be. So let's look at how Sutter's icetime compared to the other centers on the team, and how he was used both to create offense and even moreso, in short-handed situations as a reliable penalty killer. First I've got the Time On Ice per game broken down for Even Strength (ES), Power Play (PP) and Penalty Kill (SH) situations for the Cane's primary centers. (I included all of Jussi Jokinen's TOI since it's not easily broken down according to his position.) Sutter shows up with a similar ratio of ES to SH to PP as another reliable two-way center, Matt Cullen. We see now pretty clearly that his defensive role for the team is way more important than that of season scoring leaders Eric Staal and Jokinen. As expected, his minutes are way ahead of the three names at the bottom of the chart too. Yep, Selke mentions are not inappropriate at all.

Hurricanes Centers: Time on Ice per Game
Eric Staal 70 15:40 0:50 4:12 20:42
Matt Cullen 60 13:25 2:10 3.:25 19:01
Jussi Jokinen 81 13:10 0:16 3:22 16:48
Brandon Sutter 72 12:54 1:42 1:55 16:32
Rod Brind'Amour 80 10:12 1:06 1:23 12:42
Patrick Dwyer 58 10:20 2:03 0:06 12:30
Stephane Yelle 59 6:51 2:24 0:05 9:21

Last, here are some face-off comparisons between all Hurricane's centers. I'll interject with this goal highlight (#10) because it all begins with the faceoff, as Tripp Tracy points out.

Take a look at both the quantity and quality of Sutter's growth. Remember the first chart showing his progress in face-off winning percentage from beginning to end of the 09-10 season? This table below confirms he was out there a lot, and yes indeed, Maurice was relying him as a "defining player". With two other veteran centers, Matt Cullen and Stephane Yelle gone at the deadline, and Brind`Amour retired, no wonder we still feel confident that the Canes top two center positions will be just fine, thank you very much. Though that Staal kid could use some work in the circle.

Hurricanes Centers: Faceoffs taken and winning %
Player Games ES SH PP TOT FO%
Eric Staal 70 903 42 217 1162 41.8
Brandon Sutter 72 796 104 97 997 49.0
Matt Cullen 60 709 128 61 898 49.1
Rod Brind'Amour 80 641 94 114 849 58.8
Stephane Yelle 59 147 148 1 296 48.6
Jussi Jokinen 81 186 3 76 265 51.3
Patrick Dwyer 58 190 25 9 224 34.8

So, getting back to our Exit Analysis template

The Good: Sutter was the model of dependability and consistency which, when the going gets rough, is exactly what is expected from a top professional athlete. His commitment to improving both his conditioning and his play, combined with his natural leadership and his hockey sense were an inspiration to all of us watching, and I suspect to more than a few players in the room this season. Take a look at all 21 goals over at CanesVision and you'll see him over and over again, flying down the ice, or hovering near the crease, or fearlessly driving the net and battling for the rebound amongst players much bigger and more experienced than he. A lot more than you might expect from a skinny kid who was "supposed" to top out as a third-line defensive forward.

The Bad: Too skinny? [photo] I suppose he could be stronger, but his strength and skating development during the summer of 2009 was tremendous. He's just 21 and was the youngest on the roster by a more than four years most of the season. Related to strength, maybe he should have played more aggressively - were there times that a minor penalty would have been worth the trip to the box? Perhaps as a Maurice's go-to center on the penalty kill, Sutter had already calculated the the risk/reward and did what he needed to do without getting called for an infraction.

He could improve more on the 52.7 FO% of the last quarter of the season. Could we see his faceoff percentage getting to the 55 -57% range like Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby? For comparison's sake Jordan Staal, who is also mentioned as a young Selke type, was at 48.3% this year.

When we see Sutter's declining plus/minus at the end of the season, can we interpret that there was some drop-off in the spring, after Cullen and Yelle were gone and he was carrying the PK load at center? This was his first full pro season, after sitting out following the concussion much of his rookie year. Did those 79 games at the AHL and NHL level, combined with the pressure of the final push to make the post-season in March, take its toll? [Writer's note: I was going to use the three short-handed goals scored by Boston in the final game in April as an example of him dropping a beat, but when I checked the game sheet, turns out he wasn't on the ice for any of those. Sigh.]

The Money: Brandon Sutter is still playing on his entry-level contract. As a first round draft pick in 2007 (11th overall), his salary was $875,000 at the NHL level this past year, and will remain there for 2010-11.

And after you have graded Brandon Sutter on his sophomore season, take a moment to tell us what you expect of him for the upcoming year. Specifically, in which areas would you like to see him improve his performance and further contribute to the team?